[September 28, 2014] The lectionary now takes us past Palm Sunday to Jesus’ first confrontation with the leaders of Jerusalem, the city at the heart of Judaism, where was the holy Temple. On Palm Sunday Jesus entered the city by the Golden Gate in a parade that he had orchestrated. His followers, mostly, like him, pilgrims come to the city to celebrate the Passover, welcomed him as the Son of David, the King of Israel, or otherwise, the Messiah. The residents of the city were in an uproar. “Who is this?” “The prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” they were told.
The Golden Gate opened into the crowded outer courtyard of the Temple, and there Jesus at once (according to Matthew’s account) began to drive out all those who were selling and buying there. He upset the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the dove sellers, where visitors exchanged money and bought sacrifices, and were taken advantage of by the monopoly. It was a demonstration only. Then the crowds gathered round him, and there, on the Temple grounds, the blind and lame came to him for healing as they had in Galilee as the children continued the praises the people sang as they walked with him along the road outside the city wall. The resident religious leaders (and the entire city was a religious site dominated by the Temple), the chief-priests and temple-scribes, were appalled. “Do you hear what they are saying?” they said to Jesus. “Oh yes,” he tells them. You who have turned what is supposed to be the house of prayer for all the nations into a bandits’ den, “have you never read this [from the eighth psalm]: ‘By the mouths of children, babes in arms, you have made sure of praise?’” Jesus has taken his message of God’s inclusive welcome to the Temple itself, and at the same time announced his arrival as the heir of King David’s throne.
The next morning Jesus cursed a fig tree because it bore no figs and (according to Matthew’s account) the poor tree withered on the spot. The fig tree was a national symbol used in the writings of the prophets to represent the blessing of Israel in the land. Here it probably refers more specifically to the city of Jerusalem. Within the next few days Jesus would be predicting God’s abandonment of the Temple, the destruction of the city by the Romans and the exile of its inhabitants, an event that was to actually take place in forty years. As the one come in the Name of Israel’s God, bearing David’s title, it was his prophetic verdict on the city and its political culture. The cursing of the fig tree was an enacted parable—not just an arbitrary miracle—for the eyes of his disciples.
In view of what happened the day before, it is not surprising that the chief priests and the elders of the people, those responsible for the cult and the city, members of the Sanhedrin, should have come up to him and demand of him, “What authority have you for acting like this? And who gave you this authority?” They surely had not!
This was not the first time Jesus’ credentials were challenged. In the north, the Pharisees and their scribes demanded a sign in 12:38 and in 16:1 the Sadducees joined them in this demand: he was a miracle worker, let us see now a sign from heaven. You will get your sign, Jesus told them. The sign of Jonah, the prophet who left the land of Israel and preached repentance to the gentiles. And the gentiles repented!
This time the challenge comes from figures of authority who are in the pocket of the Roman governor and who have his ear. If they think Jesus spells trouble for the city, they can bring this to the attention of the governor. If he wanted to get rid of Jesus, to make him an object lesson to the trouble-making northerners who overrun the city at these times of year, he could also count on their assistance (Galilee is usually where the insurgents came from who disturbed the peace of the city, the peace on which the economy—and their personal wealth—depended). As it turns out, the news of Jesus’ royal entrance was bound to reach the governor in any case. He was not going to have it: the city was enough trouble at this time of year when its population swelled and multiplied in size. He had intents on Jesus but was intended to make the Jewish leaders take the blame for it. They nervously—yet splendidly—complied.
So, “What authority have you for acting like this? And who gave you this authority?” We, the stewards of the city and Temple, did not give it to you. If you are a prophet as the people are saying, then your authority comes from God. If so, you are going to have to substantiate this, because we certainly do not believe this. The chief priests and elders were mostly Sadducees, who abided by the Torah and did not give the same authority to the books of the prophets (they believed in neither angels nor in a resurrection of the individual dead). God rewarded a person in this life—that is what mattered to them, especially by the accumulation of wealth and status (their literal interpretation of the Deuteronomic blessing of God). This made them pragmatists.
Jesus answered them with a question. It was not an evasion but an indirect answer, which at the same time ingeniously turned the tables on them. “And I will ask you a question, just one: if you tell me the answer,” you who are purported to be the shepherds and guides of Israel, “then I will tell you my authority for acting like this. John’s baptism: what was its origin, heavenly or human?” After all, John worked no miracles. He preached repentance. What do you say of him?
If they can recognize John’s ministry as being authorized by heaven, then they can recognize Jesus’ ministry on the same basis. If they cannot recognize God’s hand in John’s ministry, then they will not accept Jesus’ ministry either. The assumption is that Jesus’ message corresponds to John’s. John’s was a call to repentance. Jesus’ message is the same. He has come to the city of Jerusalem to bring the message that he broadcasted in Galilee and the regions north, but particularly the message of repentance. The difference is that John had called people away from the Temple and its cult into the wilderness. Jesus was now bringing the message to the Temple and the people in charge of the cult. He was completing, in a way, what John began.
These stewards of the peoples’ worship of God reasoned in a completely political way, without even consulting their consciences. “If we say heavenly, he will retort to us, ‘Then why did you refuse to believe him?’ but if we say human, we have the people to fear, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’” What is clear by this is that they were not like the people over whom they were responsible: they did not take John seriously. So the question was how to wiggle between telling the truth and not getting the crowd upset with them. It was a counsel, in other words, of cowardice. They did not have any regard for people like John who called on the crowds to repent, but they could not bring themselves to make this public. For them it was all about manipulating the masses in a way that reinforced their influence over them. Truth and integrity were not important.
Now they can rationalize this in various ways. For it was their responsibility to maintain the peace of the city and that was for the good of all. Calls to repentance got the people excited and when the crowd was aroused, they could easily be manipulated, and in the hands of the wrong people (people with self-serving or delusional interests) that could be disastrous. And no doubt they would have been right in this assessment. The problem is that when they needed to recognize the truth of God, they were unable to. Their eyes, their ability to assess, was entirely political.
So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” It was the safe answer that preserved their public role as judges of these matters and kept them from giving an inch to this trouble-maker from Galilee.
Jesus then said to them, “Then I won’t tell you my authority for acting like this.” Indirectly he had given them an answer—his authority was the same as John’s.
They had come to Jesus to assert their own political authority over his purported authority from heaven. They wanted to let him know that they were in charge and to somehow bring Jesus under control. Their approach was confrontational, and was only likely to be effective if Jesus feared them. Jesus, however, had no fear. He had come to Jerusalem expecting the worse—they were going to arrest him and hand him over to the Romans to be executed. Now it was just a question of setting the stage.
To do this he tells them three parables. Today we will only consider the first one.
For the moment, however, we should also consider why Jesus was acting this way. Why was he cutting his ministry short in this way? He had created quite a stir in Galilee in a very short time. Would it not have been better to avoid Jerusalem, or at least, as he had on several occasions in the Gospel according to John, not brought things to a head? Here, during this Passover, Jesus was determined to bring things to a head. He was not just going to argue with teachers. He was determined to get the attention of the authorities. Why? What was his purpose?
This was also the first time that he allowed himself to be heralded as a king, as the King of Israel. It was disastrous, a move from which he could hardly back down, politically speaking. Since it was the truth for him, it was a question of why he should make it public—in the great city no less—right now. He could have continued to preach to the crowds, and he could have stayed to train his disciples. Yet he chose not to. He chose, in fact, to end his public ministry, with his arrest and ignoble death as a criminal. He chose to end his ministry on this note, to allow himself to be publicly humiliated, stripped naked and beaten and nailed to a cross for all the people to see as he bled in agony, a completely helpless victim, at the hands of the all-powerful Romans, mocked by those responsible for the cultic worship of the one true God.
I disagree with those who would see Jesus’ death as something he did not see coming, something that took him by surprise. They imply that he was simply a naïve victim of his own idealism. Actually, Jesus was the great realist of his time. He understood the real politics of nation and the historic disaster that the current lines of thinking were leading to.
Whoever attempts to answer this question probably has to come to terms with the issue of whether Jesus saw his path of obedience to the Father leading to some sort of act of atonement on behalf of not only the people of Israel but of the whole multitude of outsiders with whom his ministry was concerned, perhaps an act of atonement for Israel and the nations, including all the people on the margins. To answer this question, we have to consider the nature of Jesus’ ministry from the time of his baptism and withdrawal into the wilderness. This is perhaps too much to consider right now, but it is a question that readers should keep at the back of their minds as they consider the events in the last days of Jesus. (It shows a lack of imagination to narrow down the meaning of the word “atonement” to substitution. Think more broadly in terms of reconciliation. That Jesus was a substitute may actually be mistaken.)
Let us return to the first of the parables that Jesus tells, parables meant specifically for the chief priests and elders of Jerusalem who disputed his authority.
“What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, ‘My boy, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not go,’ but afterwards thought better of it and went. The man then went and said the same thing to the second who answered, ‘Certainly, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the father’s will?’” Of course it was the first.
(There is a discrepancy in the manuscripts about the order of the sons. The order I am following here is more probably the correct reading. However, it does not matter for our purpose now.)
Jesus then interprets this parable. The son who said, “I will not go,” are people like the tax collectors and prostitutes, sinners who are at the bottom of people’s distain. They were the people who in fact came to Jesus and turned their lives around. The son who said, “I will go” but did not, these are those to whom Jesus is speaking: the chief priests and elders, who represented the bulk of the religious aristocracy, people of education and responsibility and reputation and influence. Jesus only refers to himself by implication: his ministry continued what John’s began, calling people to repentance. “In truth I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you, showing the way of uprightness, but you did not believe him, and yet the tax collectors and prostitutes did. Even after seeing that, you refused to think better of it and believe him.”
In other words, you all needed to repent and follow the way of uprightness that Jesus taught, but only the most despised actually listened and took up the call. You on the other hand stayed as you were. You therefore—with all your obedience to the regulations of the Torah and the oral Halakah are worse than those tax collectors and prostitutes! Yes you have money, and you think it is because God has rewarded your good behavior, but in reality, in the eyes of God, the prostitutes who have come to me (Jesus is saying) are better than you.
You are the son who gives lip service to obedience but then continue to do whatever you want. You were working on your own agenda when the call of God went out and you continued working on your own agenda without interruption after you heard God’s call. The fact that you have rationalized it with an entire religious system and theological framework has nothing to do with the reality that God sees—the reality of your alienation from God and from God’s goodness.
So, Jesus refers back to his ministry, laying it as it were before the feet of these stewards of the Temple and royal city. He is holding them to account: what will they say to these charges? They came to confront him but he, the Son of David and heir of the city over which they are the self-appointed stewards, now confronts them with the truth about themselves. It is the same truth that their response in 21:25-26 revealed: their inability to pay attention to what really matters: their only concern was with maintaining their place in the social structure. They were blind to divine realities.
What is this “way of righteousness” that John preached? It is of course the repentance he proclaimed. In Matthew 3:15 Jesus sought to “fulfill all righteousness” by undergoing the baptism of repentance. At that moment, the sinless one stepped into the role of a penitent, one who accepted God’s judgment upon humanity, upon him as a human being in solidarity with all other human beings. This idea that Jesus accepted God’s judgment out of love of God and in the obedience to which the Father called him, is what the tax collectors and prostitutes also did. Only, in doing so under Jesus’ tutelage, they did not go off and fast but rather began bathing in the love of God’s grace and forgiveness which Jesus showed them. Thus they were making their way into the kingdom of God. This was the path of righteousness that these shepherds of Israel refused to tread, and therefore the kingdom of God was barred to them.
What are we to make of this message for ourselves? After all, there is some real irony here. Both the tax collectors and prostitutes on the one hand and the chief priests and elders on the other are the sons of the father in the parable. In real life, however, it was the chief priests and elders who thought that they were doing God’s will. That after all was the whole point of keeping the Torah and the whole edifice of the Halakah that was built as a wall around the Torah to keep one safely within its bounds. And they were responsible people, tasked with caring for the wellbeing of the whole nation. Yet Jesus says that they were the ones who said to God, “Certainly, sir,” and did not go to do the work in the vineyard. They were the ones who had worked in the vineyard all day and bore the burden of the day in the heat (20:12). These last comer, Jesus’s tax collectors and prostitutes, had done … what? They had not even learned to fast and mourn for their sins. Instead, Jesus sat at their table and invited them to his, on equal terms, as if the wedding feast of the kingdom had already begun and he was the bridegroom (so he even said).
They must have been appalled at the audacity of this young “prophet” from Nazareth. If we can sympathize with them for a moment, perhaps we can see the issues here.
The shocking thing is that Jesus really is the drawing near of the kingdom of the heavens. He really is the coming of God that Isaiah and the psalms spoke of. What he had introduced into the world by his coming was something utterly new. The law-abiding responsible people, who had been trained in the historic traditions and were invested with conserving them, were not prepared for that. They could not see, they could only be offended at, something that was so unprecedented. Just like the Pharisees earlier, they could only view these “tax collectors and prostitutes” on their own terms, as if they were the ones who had attempted to work with them and get them to reform. They could not see what Jesus brought into their lives. They just could not see it.
So the question is, can we? We might even be offended that someone should ask. After all, are we not evangelical? Are we not carrying on the revival traditions of our forebears who used these methods so effectively to save sinners? Are we not mission-oriented, all about understanding the cultures around us and coming to them on their own terms? Are we not carrying on the best marketing research to reach the unchurched?
The “new thing” that Jesus brought to people’s lives was himself. The chief priests and elders and the Pharisees before them could not see this. They were looking for something Jesus and his followers were doing, and all they could really see was what they were not doing. What Jesus did was make people come alive in their spirit by his encounter with them. Was this not what the Torah was supposed to do to? Well, yes! But Jesus is not the Torah but the fulfillment of it. What the Torah sought to do indirectly—assuming one did not try to follow it mechanically but loved God with all one’s heart and soul and strength—Jesus gave directly. Knowing him, being touched by his attention and love, changed people.
Can we keep our traditions without letting them distract us from Jesus himself? This concerns our own love for God. What about the tax collectors and prostitutes (assuming we are not one)? Can we bring Jesus to “them”? Or are we too busy trying to figure out how to save them? How can we bring Jesus to them except by being Jesus to them, and how can we be Jesus to them unless we ourselves have been so transformed by Jesus ourselves that they can see Jesus in us? The real question is, can we identify with them as much as Jesus did, showing them the kind of solidarity and compassion that Jesus did? Would we be willing to humble ourselves as he did?
Perhaps not. But then, can we express this kind of compassion for the people in our lives? Instead of judging them and trying to straighten them out, can we love them instead, not in a condescending way, looking down on them, but on a level with them, as a sinner on a par, not as someone who knows better but as someone who does not, who is simply one loved by Christ as they too are?
If not, we risk the danger of completely missing the point and not seeing God’s work when it is there in front of us. We may risk the danger of even being offended by what God is doing in the lives of others.
In Matthew’s day, these were the zealots who opposed the church’s outreach to the gentiles, not the outreach itself—the Pharisees were great proselytizers—but the way they were doing it, treating gentiles as the same as them, or rather, treating themselves as no better than the gentiles. It was all so wrong, so they thought, and so might we—if we are not careful.